Pagan Paths

Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.

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The Hellenic Underworld and afterlife

"Death came suddenly and it was mercilessly painful. You are aware you have passed: you can hear the keening of the women in your family, taste the metal of the oboloi in your mouth. You are no longer cold, or hot, and there is no pain. Sensation is for the living, and your memories start to fade already. You are no longer part of the living. You are dead, and your guide is waiting for you. 
 
Hermes Psychopompos, the winged guide of the newly dead, descends and takes your hand. Below you is the ocean: Oceanos' divine body. You used to watch it glisten in Helios' bright rays, but today, everything is dull and lifeless. You are speeding west, guided by the blessed Immortal. Below you, you can see land again and a mighty river. The land draws you down, and you stand on the ground without feeling it. It is here that Hermes Psychopompos leaves you, in the capable hands of Kharon, on the bank of the river Acheron. 
 
The ferryman looks old and ageless at the same time. He holds out his hand, but you can't understand what he wants from you. Then, his hand closes around a coin, and he steps aside to let you into his boat. Without moving, you are suddenly on the boat, looking to the shore where shadowy figures of the dead gather, longing to make the journey with you. But they have no coin to hand over, and are forced to wander the bank of the Kokytos river year after year, until the ferryman takes pity on them. Today is not their day.
 
The river fades into the darkness of a cave. The river of woe joins with the river of hate; the river Styx that seems to have no end. Kharon moves the boat forward in a steady rhythm. You reach the dock sooner than you expected to. Kharon waits silently for you to get off of his boat. You dare not move. Beyond is a field of grey, a sunless cavern filled with the shadows of the dead. The fields of Asphodel; the dreary resting place of the common Hellen. Before the fields stand a huge gate, and an equally huge dog, with three growling heads, foaming at each mouth. Kharon waits, and then you are in the field. The gate stands behind you, Kerberos a constant reminder you can never go back.
 
You wander, still remembering much of your life. The fall you took as a child that gave you a weak knee, the smile of your spouse on your wedding day. You remember your child being born. It makes being here impossible to bear. The memories will not fade, because before your judgement, you are not allowed to forget. You hold on to them as long as you can, but then you walk through the field, to the compound in the distance. Hades' compound, where the Dread Lord and His beautiful wife live. You walk to forget. Thus, you come upon the judges. 
 
Rhadamanthys, Minos and Aiakos wait for you at the trivium in the courtyard of the compound; the trivium, Hekate's sacred crossroads. If you still had a heart, you would feel it beating in your throat now. But you do not. Any decision the judges make is alright. The memories hurt. You are cut off from your loved ones, from Helios' powerful rays. Tartaros is not your place, you know that much. You have honored the Theoi, you have done right by your family. You do not fear judgement. You wish to go back to the Asphodel meadows and drink from the river Lethe; you wish to forget. More, you wish to reach Elysium, the island of the blessed. In the distance, the Lord of the Dead and his Queen Persephone must be.
 
Your life is judged, you are judged. You wait, and look to each side. Left for Tartaros, where the river Phlegethon burns, but leaves everything it touches intact. Right for Elysium, where the ghosts of the blessed reside amongst the blameless heroes. Or back the way you came for the meadows where Lethe flows free, where the dead flutter around like bats, and those initiated into the Mysteries drink from Mnemosyne, so they will not forget their previous life when they reincarnate. You wait, and are judged."
 
For the ancient Hellens, this is what dying would look like. This is how I see my 'life' after death. When I pass, I will walk to my judgement. Sadly, life after death may be the closes I will ever get to the ancient Hellens, and the Theoi, so because of that, I have a great bit of interest in the Hellenic Underworld. So lets look at the short story I wrote--I won't call it a meditation, because traveling to the Underworld is something one should not attempt in any way, shape or form--to learn a bit more about the last resting place of the ancient Hellens and modern Hellenics.

The Underworld is described as lying in the west in the Odysseia, and there is an entrance that can be reached overseas. Yet, the dead enter the Underworld through one of five rivers surrounding the Underworld.

Acheron (Αχέρων) - The river of woe. This is the river that Kharon ferries the dead across, from the land of the living, to the realm of Hades.
Cocytus (Κωκυτός) - The river of lamentation. Those who could not pay Kharon, were destined to walk the banks of this river--a side river to the river Acheron--for one hundred years.
Phlegethon (Φλεγέθων) - The river of fire in the Underworld. It's a side river of the river Styx and is said to be permanently on fire, yet never burn anything it touches. It's located in Tartaros.
Lethe (Λήθη) - The river of forgetfulness. It runs through the Asphodel meadows, and the dead have to drink from it to completely forget about their lives on Earth. Those who were initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries--linked to Demeter and Persephone--were allowed to drink from Mnemosyne and are allowed to remember.
Styx (Στύξ) - The river of hate. The Acheron joins with the Styx at the moment the land of the living makes way for the Underword, and as such, She is a portal, and the most famous of the five rivers. It is said to wrap around the Underworld nine times. Styx was also the river upon which the Theoi, and mankind, swore oaths which could not be broken, an arrangement agreed upon by Zeus and the Goddes Styx in return for her aid in the Titan Wars. If one did break an oath made upon the river Styx, they were forced by Zeus to drink from the river, upon which they lost their voice for an extended period of time.

The Underworld has various areas where the dead are housed, but also where the various Gods and Goddesses of the Underworld--called 'Theoi Khthonioi'--reside. Several of the Gods and Goddesses have already been discussed; all the rivers are Gods or Goddesses who have their home in the Underworld, and there are Kharon, Kerberos, and the judges: Rhadamanthys, Minos and Aiakos. Yet, there are a lot more. The most well known are Hades and His consort, Persephone.

Hades, brother of Zeus, son of Kronos, is the Lord of the Dead. The Underworld is His domain. He rules it with his beautiful wife--and niece--Persephone, whom He stole away. She resides with Him in their home, a large mansion at the crossroads between the Asphodel meadows, Tartaros and Elysium. This crossroads is sacred to Hekate, and located in the courtyard of the mansion. The maiden Goddess Hekate is a companion of Persephone, whom she led out of the Underworld after Zeus decreed it to be so. She vowed to Demeter to stay with Persephone in the months She spent under the earth, and takes this vow very seriously.

Kronos is an Underworld deity as well: Zeus eventually released His father and made Him king of the Elysian Islands. Other Gods, like HypnosErebos, Nyx, Makaria (daughter of Hades and Persephone, who watched over the blessed dead, who had been initiated into the Mysteries), and the Erinyes (three Goddesses of vengeance and retribution) also make their home in (a part of) the Underworld. The Moirai, the three Goddesses of fate, have their own space in the Underworld as well. Other Immortals who share the Underworld are deamons and nymphs.

In the Daemon-section, we have the the Arai (Daemones of curses), Askalaphos (who tended to the orchards of Hades and was transformed into a screech owl by Demeter for bringing Her bad news about Her daughter), Kakodaimones (Deamones which cause all kinds of harm), Empousa (a Daemon with flaming hair, the leg of a goat and a leg of bronze, who parents vowed would come after their children if they didn't behave), the Oneiri (dream spirits) and Epiales (the Daemon of nightmares). Other Daemones include: Eurynomos (who stripped the flesh off of the corpses of the dead), the Lamiai and Mormolykeia (vampiric, succubus-like, Daemones in the following of Hekate), Melinoe (who led the souls of the dead back to earth to haunt the living). Menoites, furthermore, herds the black-skinned cattle of Hades, and Thanatos, the winged Daemon of death, is Hades' minister.

There are also a few Underworld nymphs: Daeira (a companion of Persephone), the Lampades (torch bearing nymphs in Hekate's following who may have looked over the blessed dead on their way to Elysium), Leuke (a nymph abducted by Hades and transformed into a white poplar which stands in the Elysian fields), Mynthe (a beowed nymph of Hades, who Persephone turned to dust and Hades turned into the mint plant), and Orphne (wife of Acheron).

As for the dead, they had three places to go in the Underworld: Tartaros, where those who were punished for all eternity remained, the Asphodel meadows, where everyone who had lived a good life wandered about endlessly, and the Elysian fields, where the children of Gods, the blessed dead and those who had lead extraordinarily honorable, brave or otherwise well-respected lives resided.

The ancient Hellens believed the Underworld was a neutral place. One did not desire to go there in the least, but it was part of life, and as far as the afterlife went, it was dull and sunless but nothing like the hell of Christianity. The worst part about it is being without the touch of loved ones, and forgetting who you were. In the Odysseia, Odysseus meets his mother's spirit at one of the entrance points to the Underworld. She tells him:

"Oh, my child, most unfortunate of men, Persephone, Zeus’ daughter, does not deceive you: this is the way it is with mortals after death. The sinews no longer bind flesh and bone, the fierce heat of the blazing pyre consumes them, and the spirit flees from our white bones, a ghost that flutters and goes like a dream."

Nobody wants to think about dying and the dead for too long, so I will end this post here. May it have given you some insight into the workings of the Underworld. 
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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

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